Chicago: City of Architecture

Whilst New York may boast the tallest skyline in the United States, runner-up Chicago is the actual birthplace of the skyscraper. This alone would secure it a place in architectural history, but it was also where Frank Lloyd Wright – the most celebrated American architect – developed his Prairie style. From my studies – and instagram! – I had spent much of a year filling a map with buildings I wanted to check out. Unfortunately, the short days and bitter cold of Chicago in January limited how many I could fit in – and once there, I was also often distracted by places I didn’t even know existed! The elements also rendered photography tricky, although I have posted some efforts in this gallery TODO, or read on for an assortment of highlights.

Magnificent Mile

My choice of hotel – the Intercontinental Magnificent Mile – put me within easy distance of plenty of architectural attractions. Its own 1920’s south tower is decorated in an eclectic mix of styles, from Assyrian carvings to a Moorish dome – originally intended as a docking port for airships!

Next door stands a near contemporary, the Tribune Tower. A well-publicised design competition generated a depth of entries which took the pulse of American architectural fashion, both recent and yet to be realised. The winning selection, a neo-gothic skyscraper, arguably marked the end of an era as the last major work in that style. (The second place entry, by Eliel Saarinen, proved enormously influential for more modern towers.)

A few steps closer to the river stands the Wrigley Building, another Chicago icon from the 1920s, with a brilliant white terracotta exterior and renaissance influences. Let us not speak too much of the neighbouring Trump tower, notable only for its bulk.

Left to right: Wrigley Building, south tower of the Intercontinental Magnificent Mile, and Tribune Tower.

Chicago Architecture Center

After a brief detour to the Marina City towers, worsening snowfall lead me to shelter across the river at CAC, the Chicago Architecture Center.

Upstairs is a wonderful gallery space, which wisely recognises the giants across the river and frames them through enormous windows. A temporary exhibition was celebrating the work of Helmut Jahn, whose work I had unknowingly encountered many years ago in Berlin.

Main exhibition hall at CAC

Downstairs, meanwhile, various permanent displays offer more information on the social history of architecture in Chicago. There’s also an enormous interactive model of the city – helpful for getting my bearings before exploring further.

Chicago in miniature

The First Chicago School

Although the very first skyscraper – the Home Insurance Building of 1885 – was demolished in the 1930s, there are still a great many surviving examples of the early Chicago commercial architecture style. Collectively, nine of them comprise a tentative UNESCO world heritage site, Early Chicago Skyscrapers.

Seeking them out gave me an inadvertent tour of the loop district – and was also quite a challenge, as many have repeatedly changed names and tenants since their construction back at the end of the 19th century.

Steel frame construction allows the core of a structure to carry its weight, rather than load-bearing exterior walls. Today, this is exploited for the curtains of glass that characterise corporate architecture worldwide, but for these examples, the skin was still of stone or brick. In what became known as the Chicago school, a tripartite division inspired by classical columns was used to organise these unusually-tall structures – an early example of the principle of form following function.

Monadnock Building, 1891: one of the early Chicago skyscrapers.

875 North Michigan Avenue

Better known by its previous name, the John Hancock Tower, this early example of high tech architecture makes a feature of the X-bracing that allowed it to soar to a hundred floors. At the time of completion in 1969 this made it Chicago’s tallest building, but such is the ever increasing scale of the city it only now occupies fifth place.

Its observation level, 360 Chicago, allows you to admire both these rivals and the other thousand high-rises from the 94th floor: CAC’s model city made real.

View South from 360 Chicago.

Union Station

Before I embarked on my long trip west, I was able to enjoy a gem of railway architecture: Chicago Union Station, in the beaux arts style popular in America for both transportation hubs and government buildings. Not always appreciated, much of Union Station has been lost – and the modern additions definitely do not inspire the same awe – but just a couple of years ago the Great Hall was restored to its full glory.

Great Hall, Chicago Union Station.

Frederick C. Robie House

Frederick C. Robie House

While my first visit to Chicago was all about soaring verticality, on my return I had my sights set on two studies in horizontality. First was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House – a particularly strong example of his Prairie style that has received UNESCO world heritage status. As with the station, it had to be rescued from years of neglect, but today after long restoration it is open to the public as a museum offering expert tours.

I was particularly lucky with my tour – as the only participant on a below-freezing Friday lunchtime, I could ask as many questions as I wanted and take my time over photography. My guide did an excellent job of pointing out all the tiny details that elevated this property to a masterpiece; although I had studied it on my course, being there in person is even more rewarding.

Finished in 1909, as with the early Chicago skyscrapers a steel frame allows for dramatic new forms – but here it is the horizontal potential of cantilevering that is explored. This is emphasised by everything from the choice of bricks to the long runs of windows – drainpipes were excluded as they would compromise the effect! The house is also an example of total design – Wright being responsible for all the interior furnishing too.

Robie House Interior.

S. R. Crown Hall

My route back from the Robie House took me past the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies van de Rohe both taught and designed much of the campus. Famous for his principle of “less is more”, the definitive work of his minimalist style can be found here, S. R. Crown Hall.

S. R. Crown Hall, IIT.

Fittingly, this is home to the College of Architecture. Its uncompromisingly modernist design is genuinely practical: no interior columns are needed to support the structure, so the interior space can be reconfigured in countless ways. Wandering the campus, I found several variations on the basic design, but this is the purest expression of it. An important landmark in modern architecture – but probably the most controversial entry on this list for precisely that reason!